Why Kelsey Waldon Was Country Music’s Unsung Hero of 2019
We’re not exactly in Kentucky, but Kelsey Waldon’s Bluegrass State DNA is everywhere across the cozy log cabin she lives in with her boyfriend half an hour outside of Nashville — it’s that “DNA” that she sings about in “Kentucky, 1988,” Rolling Stone‘s best country song of the year.
You can see it as you approach from the gravel drive, via a black sign that reads “KY Best” in block letters, hanging on the rust-colored shed. It’s in the camo jacket from her father’s hunting lodge, slung on a hook inside with various other pieces of clothing more appropriate for trudging through mud than anything else. Like most everything here, the jacket has a sense of life to it, hung there half to honor it, but still standing at attention. It’s both utilitarian and ornamental.
“I’ve had that jacket since I was 16,” Waldon says, running her hands over a sleeve before leading us into what she calls the “juju room,” which is basically a small office. At the far end, there’s a wall covered in pictures and memorabilia: a paper plate that says “sold out” from a gig at Nashville’s Station Inn, signed by label boss John Prine (Waldon signed to Oh Boy Records in the spring), a picture of her grandmother as a little girl and one of her great granddaddy’s first house in the Barlow river bottoms, where you have to build creatively to stay above the rising waters. “It’s all very romantic,” she adds, before turning to a small black and white photo and laughing. “And there’s my great granddaddy, on the toilet.”
2019 is the year that Waldon brought all these stories to the surface on her album White Noise/White Lines, which she co-produced with Dan Knobler. They are stories she’s been collecting since growing up in Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky, and moving to Tennessee, where she came to study songwriting at Belmont University. A fixture in the Nashville musical scene for nearly a decade, these past 12 months saw Waldon making a transition from under-the-radar force to becoming the first artist signed to Prine’s Oh Boy records in 15 years. And while Waldon’s work is often referred to as steeped in the past, it’s actually focused on rewriting perceptions to shape a more vibrant, complete future — once that sees rural people as full and complex, far more than any simplified or fetishized portrayal can capture.
Perhaps no one personifies this more than Waldon’s father, whom she sings about on “Kentucky, 1988,” and whose voice appears on the record in an interlude, taken from a voicemail he left after hearing his daughter on the local radio. Before we sit down in the kitchen, where Waldon has some candles flickering, she stops at a painting of trees and the sky in sunset colors hanging in the hallway: it’s by Ricky Waldon, her dad. “He’s a talented dude,” Waldon says, admiring it. “He owns a hunting lodge and all, but he’s won barbeque competitions, he carves wood, he can paint. There are so many misunderstandings about rural people in general.”
Waldon, in jeans and a thermal shirt, walks into the living area with a cup of tea, and sits at a small bar-height table. “There are rural people all around the world, and they make up half this country,” she says. “They are a lot more colorful than people think, and there are a lot more layers. I will stand by my rural Kentuckians. Yes, there are people from home who have never left their county. But there are also people from Brooklyn who never leave their block. So they might not know anything about a West Virginia coal miner.”
What makes Waldon’s music special, in part, is that she strives to understand both: her music is empathetic with the coal miner, the local farmers, and with young parents like her own, who had to learn how to raise children while growing up themselves. And with the members of the Chickasaw Nation, with whom Waldon spent the 2017 solar eclipse, listening to Merle Haggard and talking about how they, too, are so misunderstood. Their voices are also heard on White Noise/White Lines.
But she brings this understanding into a modern context, spun in a way that tries to show how we all have a lot more in common than not. While mainstream country loves to glamorize a small town experience — tailgates, Friday night football games, kisses behind the bleachers — it’s been artists like Waldon, alongside names like Tyler Childers and Ian Noe, who bring life to what a true rural existence is often like.
It’s no surprise, then, that Waldon caught the ear of Prine, who so vividly painted stories of Kentucky life — its brutal realities, its people, its singular DNA — on songs like “Paradise.” Singing a duet on “Paradise,” in fact, was the first time Prine and Waldon performed together, on the Cayamo Cruise, and Waldon was so nervous to meet her hero that she sought out a little pep talk from Margo Price and Jeremy Ivey. “Margo was like, ‘I was so nervous to talk to him, too, at first,'” says Waldon. “But then it just became normal and cool.”
Waldon wrote the songs of White Noise/White Lines well before her record deal with Oh Boy even materialized, and while she self-released her two previous albums, she was eager for a more substantial platform, which didn’t seem like it was ever going to come.
“I’m really crazy about Kelsey’s voice. It reminds me of Tammy Wynette.” – John Prine
“Last year, there was a minute of serious depression and just not knowing,” she says. “I was just like, ‘Damn, I don’t know if this record is going to see the light of day.’ You expect something to happen; you think, ‘Well, I did this.’ But no, it’s going to take a lot more. No one is waiting for you. I’m lucky I come from some strong-willed stock.”
It took a strong will to endure sending the record around to labels in town who didn’t connect with how “country” her voice sounded. They suggested she take lessons and smooth it out a bit. Prine, though, found it perfect. Waldon laughs when remembering that Prine wanted her to send over not a digital copy of the album, but a burned CD. Actually, three burned CDs.
“I’m really crazy about Kelsey’s voice,” Prine says. “It reminds me of Tammy Wynette. Not the sound, but the way that it has such vulnerability and years of experience in it. Every time I sing with her I find myself looking over and thinking, ‘There’s really something special here.'”
Waldon and Oh Boy made things official this spring, and they announced the signing at the Grand Ole Opry. “Kelsey has such a sure sense of who she is as a performer and a songwriter,” says Jody Whelan, director of operations for Oh Boy. “So beyond all the accolades and record sales, the most exciting part of this year was seeing her vision of what country music in 2019 looks like and helping share that.”
That vision is one that moves as an evolving of tradition, not carbon copies of the past: Waldon infuses different sonic touch points, from psychedelic rock to R&B and funk across White Lines/White Noise, while keeping it thoroughly rooted in her Kentucky bluegrass roots. “Soul and R&B and jazz and blues, that’s so much a part of country music,” she says. “Country music used to have a lot of soul.”
The album’s centerpiece is “Kentucky, 1988,” a song she’s referred to as her own “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and the story of her life. It’s also heavily about forgiveness and understanding, and the realization that struggle touches everyone. For Waldon, that was making peace with the people who raised her. “Your parents are not perfect people,” she says. “They are just as troubled and beautiful as the rest of us. I wouldn’t be the way I am now without them, even with the terrible things. I have a perspective now, and it takes a really mature person to have forgiveness, to say you love somebody even if they don’t say they are sorry. For better or worse, this is my stock.”
Accepting and embracing her roots has not meant, however, blindly following everything she’s known without question. Waldon was raised in the Southern Baptist church, and “Sunday’s Children” is a song about the warping of religion in the name of hate — and not a rebuke of the church as some on Reddit and otherwise have suggested (one post proclaims “Kelsey Waldon disses Christianity”). “We all want the same things, we all dream the same dreams,” she sings. “Don’t have to be just like you to understand universal truth.”
“So many of my gay and lesbian friends grew up made to feel they were wrong for being who they are,” she says. “That they’re wrong, they should repent, they should pray. Some of these white supremacy movements are backed by religion, and it’s all just really absurd to me. Sometimes you are so extreme in your beliefs, you can’t see any other way. You put your ‘religion goggles’ on. But some people haven’t liked the song, and that’s OK.” She takes a sip of her tea and thinks for a minute. “I realized the people who have been offended by it, though, might be those people.”
In talking to Waldon about this or anything, Dolly Parton comes up a lot — not just as one of the most prolific songwriters, but for how she told her story and stayed true to where she came from yet always skirted expectations. Parton, too, has spoken openly about how she despises when religion is used in the name of discrimination and hate, even recently on the podcast Dolly Parton’s America.
“Dolly is still unmistakable country, but you see all types of people at her shows,” Waldon says. “Country-ass people, gay couples, people who love good music. You just see everybody.” Maybe that’s because she’s a unifier, or maybe because most people — like the country music fan and the resident of rural Kentucky — are more complex than we can ever assume.
“Hopefully people realize I am a lot more than a one-dimensional person,” Waldon says before heading into Nashville to pick up her van from the shop. “There’s always a lot of, ‘Oh, she’s a throwback artist.’ No, I don’t think that’s who I am. I’m making music now. For now.”
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